The Wick - Fatos Ustek, Photo by Christa Holka The Wick - Fatos Ustek, Photo by Christa Holka
Monday Muse

Interview Curator Fatoş Üstek

Fatoş Üstek
Christa Holka
12 December 2022
Fatoş Üstek
Christa Holka
12 December 2022
Last week saw the exciting announcement that Fatoş Üstek will take over from Clare Lilley as the 2023 curator of Frieze Sculpture in Regent’s Park. Part of the trinity celebrating London’s creativity, together with Frieze London and Frieze Masters, the annual public sculpture exhibition will take place from 20 September to 29 October 2023.

It was a busy week for Üstek, who is also the Chair of Bloomberg New Contemporaries – the latest edition of their annual exhibition returned to the South London Gallery for the fifth consecutive year last Thursday. From an open call submission of over 1,500 entries, 47 of the UK’s most exciting emerging artists were selected. This week’s Monday Muse Fatoş Üstek chaired the two-stage process.

A curator, writer and leading voice in contemporary art, Üstek has been commissioning in the public realm for over two decades and has worked on a number of large-scale biennials and festivals. She previously ran the Liverpool Biennial and The Roberts Institute of Art in the UK, was a judge for the Turner Prize 2020, and has sat on the selection and award committees for the Scotland and Dutch Pavilions at Venice. She is also a contributing editor of Extra Extra Magazine and writes regularly for academic publications and exhibition catalogues. If that wasn’t enough, she is currently working on a new model for art institutions to be published as a book in 2023.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Fatoş Üstek:   I don’t think I have an ultimate Monday Muse. I get inspired by so many people and so many things in life. My recent inspiration was from a dear colleague Karina Kottová. I was in Prague for the Jindřich Chalupecký Award, which is led by the Jindřich Chalupecký Society. The award has a similar reputation and recognition to the UK’s Turner Prize. Karina has been running this organisation for almost eight years now and she has transformed the whole structure into a collective model with a flat hierarchy where four curators alongside producers and programme assistants are working collaboratively in realising not only an ambitious award show with a production of five new works but also a year-long programme that expands beyond the country, manifesting in New York, Moscow and elsewhere. A collective responsibility model for running and leading institutions is something I have been working on for a while now, and to see that Karina has already put that into reality was ever so inspiring and expansive.

TW:   What is your typical Monday?

FU:   Mondays are my anchors in the week. I start the week with a plan of action. I outline what I want to do and accomplish, dedicating slots for research and admin. I typically don’t take any meetings on a Monday and take the day to set the tone and the pace for the week ahead. Over the last few years, I developed a daily morning self-care ritual that precedes my start of work. Mondays play an important role in keeping up the continuity and furthering my practice of self-care.

TW:   Last week saw the opening of the New Contemporaries exhibition. Which artwork is your highlight?

FU:   It was a great opening with a wonderful crowd of excited young artists and a thoroughly engaged audience. I chaired the selection process for this year’s exhibition, which led me to build a liking for many of the works. Meeting the artists makes a difference for me, especially when I get to see their ambition and curious rigour. Danying Chen’s depiction of gods from the traditions and myths of her upbringing and her disbelief in pictorial composition, Velvet Butler Carroll’s inspiring performance at the opening, Paola Estrella’s intriguing and multi-layered video piece, Gabriel Kidd’s sensually composed installation and Lorena Levi’s delicately detailed atmospheric paintings are some of the many that stood out to me.

TW:   Can you tell us about your new project putting together sculpture and mathematics?

FU:   It is my first collaboration with artist Conrad Shawcross. We have been in conversation for a while and when the interest from the Mathematical Institute in Oxford came up, we decided to work together. With a degree in mathematics, I have a soft spot for science and its institutional frameworks. The Mathematical Institute in Oxford, with its inspiring building envisioned by Rafael Viñoly architects, houses all mathematics scholars and students from all colleges of Oxford University. It has been a tremendous joy to imagine Conrad’s sculptures expanding onto the floors and common areas of the Institute and evoking responses from field-specialised scholars and students. Conrad works with the geometric form tetrahedron and constructs his pieces into sculptures (i.e. the Paradigm series). His mathematical, geometric and philosophical inquiry manifests into form, where his sculptures (static and kinetic) expose new forms of thinking. The project grew in its conception adding works that employ non-repeating patterns and fractal geometry, becoming the largest survey exhibition of Conrad in the UK. One of the most exciting aspects of this collaboration is its duration, that the exhibition is on for a whole year. Currently, I am working on a four-part symposium series that we will hold in the new year, juxtaposing artistic and scientific thought, and engaging scholars from the disciplines of mathematics and physics with artists.

“We need a major uplift in the sector when it comes to artist fees and conception of artistic labour as well as meeting the needs of the artists.”

TW:   London launched its inaugural sculptural week this year. Why do you think sculpture has had so much more focus over the past few years?

FU:   The interest in sculptures and sculpture parks has been building momentum since the 1990s, with the transition of focus on city tourism from country-centric representations. Thus Chicago, Istanbul, and Seoul cultivated further appeal than USA, Turkey and South Korea. Art in common places abolished the threshold fear that museums and art institutions inflict on the public who do not have the habit, tradition or interest in encountering what is displayed behind the doors. The immediacy and spontaneity of a work of art provide multiple benefits for councils, developers and city planners, to evoke and sustain public praise. Focus on the public realm took a different turn with the Covid outbreak. Art in museums and galleries became less accessible, while the need for encountering different perspectives and artistic positions stayed the same if not increased during the sequential lockdowns.

TW:   How do you see sculpture adapting to the NFT market and what’s the best-in-class example in your opinion?

FU:   I am interested in the expanded notion of sculpture, which is beyond the forms that rise above the ground, with viewers circumnavigating around its axis. One of the inspiring artists that expands this notion for me is Ayşe Erkmen. Her works manifesting in installations, architectural interventions, or even videos and helicopters flying sculptures above Munster, are all examples of the medium. When it comes to the NFT market, I don’t have a best-in-class answer. It may be that I still hold a prejudice against the market and plausible position to the nature of experiences NFTs generate. I hope to be proven wrong in the near future.

TW:   In 2021, you started FRANK Fair Artist Pay. In what ways can institutions develop their structures and methods to see fair practice?

FU:   The arts sector in the UK is going through an enormous change, fuelled by the socio-political and economic shifts of the 21st century. With co-founders Anne Hardy and Lindsay Seers, we think fair practice needs to be part of the equation while this transformation is taking place. First and foremost, economic equality is a driving force for inclusion and diversity in the sector. The arts sector has notoriously low salary rates, and fees for artists are either nominal or non-existing. It makes it harder for artists coming from low-income backgrounds or with caring responsibilities to have a professional career in the field. FRANK Fair Artist Pay aims to catalyse the sector in employing and embedding better structures for fair practice that not only include fair remuneration but fair working conditions, fair contracts and so on. We are planning to work with the UK’s public institutions, funding bodies, artist-run spaces and artists in unpacking the mystery of fair practice and equip them with a set of guidelines and practical tools. We need a major uplift in the sector when it comes to artist fees and conception of artistic labour as well as meeting the needs of the artists. I think we need a mindset shift. First and foremost, artists need to have rates that reflect their profession (not teaching rates or worker rates). Secondly, institutions need to make more accurate estimations of the time and labour they demand from an artist when they invite them for a collaboration (increased visibility and free marketing does not pay bills). Thirdly, institutions need to employ more transparent and collaborative approaches in working with artists. The list does not end here, but these three areas would be a good start.

TW:   If you could own one piece of artwork, what would it be?

FU:   It is so hard for me to choose. Every piece I like promises a whole new world. I would like to have continuous access to Shezad Dawood’s VR piece Kalimpong (2017). I remember visiting his solo exhibition and being transported into a new realm, with a strong sense of hanging weightless in the air in the midst of nothingness. If I may add, I also fancy travelling with Man Ray’s pocket chess as an avid chess player/lover.

TW:   Where is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

FU:   My favourite activities are visiting exhibitions and bookshops. These days, my favourite culturally curious spot is the British Library. I frequent the library for research and writing as I prepare a book for next year. I like libraries for many reasons. I think what makes them special is the people who frequent them and charge them with their intention for learning and intellectual advancement. I like the air in reading rooms that weighs with inquisitive thinking and pondering.

TW:   What will be your top fashion pick to visit sculpture parks and shows in the new year?

FU:   Bold colours, inspiring accessories and definitely comfortable shoes.

TW:   If you could take only three things to a desert island, what would they be?

FU:   A pen, my glasses and a fishing rod. I would use the pen to express myself and plot ideas down onto leaves and anything I can write on. I would use my glasses to see far (to spot the passing ships) and to strike up a fire when needed. And a fishing rod would help me to keep my omega-3 levels in a healthy balance.

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